I still remember what lunch time as a lower school kid was like. We'd proudly carry around our lunch boxes, sit around a table and unlock those magical metal cartoon themed-boxes (this was the late 80s, very early 90s) to see what mom had packed for us that day. Having been in American/International schools, I distinctly recall my friends pulling out things like, let's say, cute peanut butter & jam sandwiches (and sometimes, the sliced bread was crust-less) whereas I would be there with a gigantic pita bread rolled up and generously filled with hummus or labneh. You did not want to pick a fight with me, because I might had been able to knock someone's head off with my pita sandwich. Yes, I was that kid. And while you were eating Oreo's for dessert, I was nibbling on dried fruits.
Anyway, I wouldn't had changed my childhood for a thing. And fortunately, having grown up as a third culture kid exposed me to different cuisines which explains why I like to think I now have well-trained (and spoiled) taste buds.
So back to hummus & co: the great thing about Middle Eastern food is all these really neat dips and spreads like labneh, baba ghanoush, muhammara etc... They are magical because you can eat them as part of a mezze, with grilled meats or right off the spoon- nutella style.
I've blogged about these recipes before (like labneh balls)- but since they're classic, they deserve a second feat!
The most straight forward and globally reknown one is surely hummus. Simply blend chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, a pinch of salt and garlic until smooth. If you're using canned chickpeas, I recommend that you boil the chickpeas prior to using them. Plate the hummus, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle some cumin and top off with chickpeas or crushed toasted nuts.
Then there is muhammara- which is my personal fave. It's a combination of toasted crushed walnuts (set them aside)
while blending chopped bell peppers with dried toast. The dried toast is going to suck up any water released from the peppers, so that the overall result is not too liquidy.
I don't like to over-blend as I like a bit of a grainy consistency
Then, in a large bowl, mix the nuts, bell pepper and toast combination. Add a generous spoonful of pomegranate molasses, a pinch of salt and optionally, for a bit of a kick, sneak in some hot chili flakes
You can find pomegranate molasses at specialty stores. If you're in NYC, you can find some at Buon Italia at the Chelsea Market.
There you have muhammara- this goes especially well with grilled meats!
Now for labneh- you'll need to create a special set-up for this one:
First, you need to get two containers- a small one and a larger one. Poke some holes in the smaller one. I use plastic containers that I don't mind throwing out eventually.
Then, you'll need some coffee filters
Line the smaller container (with the poked holes) with a coffee filter and place it on top of the bigger one. On the first day, fill the top container (lined with the coffee filter) with yoghurt and place in the fridge overnight. On the next day, some of the whey will have dripped down onto the bottom container- throw this out and change the coffee filter. Repeat this process every 24 hours. It usually takes me three days to achieve the perfect texture: creamy but not too dry. For reference, two yoghurts (7 oz/200gr each) produce about one cup of labneh.
Labneh on the third day: creamy but not too dry.
Plate, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with dried mints. Alternatively, you can also shape the labneh into balls and store in an olive-oil filled jar.